Tim Benz: ‘Rattled’ Penguins can’t write a better ending to familiar script

After 40 minutes of the Penguins-Rangers game Friday night, it dawned on me.

Are we all really here at PPG Paints Arena for Game 6? Or is this a weird out-of-body experience? Are 18,187 of us just watching a hologram replay of Wednesday’s Game 5?

As was the case Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Penguins dominated the first period. New York Rangers star goalie Igor Shesterkin looked shaky. The Penguins took a lead into the locker room for the first intermission.

Then in the second period, up 2-0, something went wrong for Pittsburgh. Not quite as bad as Sidney Crosby getting knocked out of the game, as he did two days before. But bad.

Five minutes into the period, Evan Rodrigues was checked into the boards from behind. The Rangers weren’t whistled for the penalty. Rodriguez retaliated. He was put into the penalty box.

Then, just like after the Penguins realized Crosby was out in the second period of Game 5, they melted down.

Five seconds into the power play, Mika Zibanejad scored to trim the Rangers’ deficit to 2-1.

He scored again 76 seconds later to tie it. Then, at the 13:48 mark, Chris Kreider notched a power play goal with Mike Matheson serving a four-minute high stick to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead.

It was a three-goal flurry very similar to what the Penguins endured in the previous game.

Fortunately for the Penguins, Evgeni Malkin did his best Jake Guentzel impersonation and scored a late third-period goal to re-tie the game at 3-3 heading into the second intermission.

For the first two periods, Friday night’s contest was nearly a carbon copy of the sequence of events from Wednesday night’s Game 5 — a game the Penguins eventually lost 5-3 because they were the less disciplined, inferior team in the third period.

To be fair, the Penguins did write a different ending to the last 20 minutes. It was just another sad one.

On Friday, they ended up losing 5-3 again, this time because they had substandard goaltending, and it’s not like Shersterkin was great in the other net for New York.

Penguins goalie Louis Domingue allowed a gaffe of a goal for the Rangers’ game-winner with just 1:28 remaining. I have tried to punch away a shot with both hands and the puck ended up popping over his own head and into the net.

I’d like to say the Cinderella story of Domingue hit midnight at that moment. But if we are being honest with ourselves, it’s been about 12:15 am for a few games now. The third-stringer turned starter allowed five goals in a Game 2 loss and four goals before empty netters in Games 5 and 6.

To say nothing of yielding a 4-1 lead before the Penguins were able to win Game 3 by a final of 7-4.

That’s not going to be good enough in the playoffs. We’re a long way from the fun of spicy pork and broccoli now, aren’t we?

To be fair, Domingue is a third-stringer pressed into service. His Devlin-Hodges-on-skates story was going to need plenty of offensive support to see a happy ending. It’s something the Penguins provided over the first seven periods of home ice hockey and during the first period of Game 5 at Madison Square Garden.

However, in both of the last two games, the Penguins have sputtered after showing lots of offensive pop in the first 20 minutes.

“We had our chances. We didn’t score,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “We had chances on the power play (0 for 3), too, and we didn’t score. It’s just up to us to play 60 minutes like we did in the first.”

Matheson made it sound like a degree of emotional stability has been a factor. The Penguins have faced adversity in the second period of each of the last two games — whether it’s been Crosby leaving the ice in Game 5 or the bad officiating break that led to the Rangers’ first power play on Friday. And they haven’t handled it well

“It’s not going to be a perfect game where we score a couple of goals and stay up all game,” Matheson said. “They are going to have their pushes. They might score one or two. I think we need to do a better job of not getting rattled in those situations and stay the course.”

Coach Mike Sullivan disagreed with Matheson’s assessment of the team being “rattled,” calling the Penguins’ misfortunes for those stretches in each of the last two second periods more “circumstantial.”

“I didn’t see our team getting rattled,” Sullivan said. “The demeanor on the bench is fine. The conversation amongst the players on the bench is fine. I didn’t see that at all. … For the most part, we have done a real good job of limiting the amount of quality looks they are getting. But they are going to get some.”

Whatever the reason, a formula for the Rangers has presented itself in each of the last two games. Absorb the Penguins’ early push. Counter. And close them out in the third.

Now, barring herculean efforts to play from Crosby and perhaps starting goaltender Tristan Jarry, the Penguins look like a team ready to be closed out Sunday in Game 7.

If they want to author a different final chapter than that, they may want to start tweaking the plot in the first intermission instead of the second.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless otherwise specified.

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